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What If Some Of Us Choose To Be Gay? Does It Matter?

Posted on February 4, 2014 at 12:40 AM

By Dennis Stone


“We were born this way.”


That simple sentence is one of the strongest arguments we have when we try to convince straight people that we deserve all the rights that they have. I myself have used it, and it has helped me to convince five straight people so far to support marriage equality. But there is something about that sentiment that bothers me. It implies on some level that being gay is some sort of flaw, something I can’t help. “If I had a choice I’d change it, but since I can’t, please don’t deny me my rights.”


“Same Love,” the Grammy winning song by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, gives me a sense of unease for the same reason. “And I can't change, even if I tried, even if I wanted to.” Those lyrics are true for me, and for every gay person I know, but they feel so defensive, making me feel almost like an object of pity because I have an affliction I’m stuck with. I love “Same Love,” and I love Macklemore and Ryan Lewis for creating the song. The criticism they’ve been getting simply on the basis of being “straight, white, cis males” is ridiculous. But as much as I love the song, those lyrics give me a bit of a twinge every time I hear them.



Macklemore and Ryan Lewis


Should we have rights, should we be equal to our fellow citizens, only if our sexuality is something over which we have no control? If we were to choose to have sex with people of our own gender, does that harm other people? Is that the business of government? Is that a reason to be denied equal protection under the law? The answer seems clear.


Michael Ambrosino has written an article for the “New Republic” that addresses this issue. He begins his argument by referencing his own reaction to “Same Love,” which is similar to mine, and makes the case that our rights should not be dependent on making straights feel sorry for us because we were “born that way.” And then he states that he essentially chose to be gay himself, and that “choice” is a part of the sexual equation for some gay people.


Ambrosino’s article has generated a firestorm of negative reaction. Overwhelmingly, the response boils down to two thoughts: 1. “I did not choose to be gay. No one chooses to be gay.” 2. “Ambrosino is an anti-gay idiot”. And probably a self-hating Log Cabin Republican to boot.


Since I’ve never had a problem bucking the trend of popular opinion (which is one of the big reasons I never had any angst about realizing I was gay) I’m going to defend Ambrosino against the avalanche of criticism. First, his basic contention is absolutely correct. Our rights should not be dependent on convincing straight people that we have no control over our orientation. It does feel demeaning and defensive to have to make that argument. The thought that my rights could be infringed based on how I choose to live my private life is dumbfounding and outrageous. We deserve those rights because ALL people deserve those rights, and private attractions and private actions should have nothing to do with legal equality. Even if being gay were our choice.


The overwhelming source of the anger towards Ambrosino comes from people outraged that he could suggest that people can choose their sexuality. Comment after comment says “I didn’t choose to be gay,” or “Ambrosino is an ass for saying that people choose their orientation.”


In their defensive and reactive rush to judgment and outrage they are missing an important fact. Ambrosino never said “gay people choose to be gay.” What he DID say is that we are increasingly coming to recognize the “fluidity” (a word that is approaching curse word status for many gays) of sexual response, and that choice is a part of that sexual response for many people. He claims that he himself chose his identity. But he is not trying to tell you that you chose yours.


Let’s quote him directly: “Many people do feel as if their sexuality is something they were born with, and I have no reason to disbelieve them.” He also lauds “Same Love” for “rightly condemning ‘right wing conservatives [who] think it's a decision, and you can be cured with some treatment and religion.’" As I read the article his beliefs about the inborn nature of sexuality were clear to me, to wit: some people are born with a distinct, unchangeable orientation, and it would be very wrong, and fruitless, to try to change that orientation; but at the same time there are other people, like himself, with a more fluid brand of sexuality, and those people do have the ability to make choices. But, most importantly, IT DOESN’T MATTER EITHER WAY when it comes to legal rights and equality.


I recognized on first reading what Ambrosino was trying to say, but huge numbers of gay readers (in fact, almost all of them, based on internet comment sections) very clearly did not. That’s because Ambrosino made a HUGE error when he wrote his piece. He should have stressed, more clearly and more unambiguously, that he was not talking about the large number of gay people who literally don’t have a choice. He knows that is true – indeed, anyone with a brain knows that is true. He should have been clear that he was talking about those that do have some level of choice, and he should have clearly defined what he meant by that concept, using his own situation in some detail as an example. No writer wants his major point to be obfuscated by side issues, but that’s exactly what happened with this piece. His major point is interesting and worthy of discussion, but it has been mostly lost in the hubbub caused by his lack of clarity.


So what does Ambrosino mean by “choice” and “fluidity?” Let’s look at that by means of a few real-life examples, including both Ambrosino’s and my own. Brandon grew up in a very religious family (his father was a pastor), and when his high school girlfriend decided to go to Liberty University he followed her there. She was “the girl God sent [him] to marry,” after all. But when she broke up with him to date other guys he discovered he wanted to date other guys as well. His story about his time at Liberty doesn’t make clear what if any gay desires he had prior to his girlfriend breaking up with him, or what sort of sex life they had experienced. (His story of his time at Liberty, his sexual evolution, and the reaction of professors, counselors and others when he came out is fascinating, and can be read here.)


He is apparently saying that he was attracted to his girlfriend in high school, and until they broke up. And then he was attracted to guys and started dating them. He chose to pursue relationships with guys, but he could also choose to go back to dating women as he had done before. Ergo, he is choosing to be gay.


Ah, you say, but he’s simply bisexual. Or perhaps he was hiding from his true self when he was younger, which is not uncommon. If he’s bisexual he’s just using terms incorrectly. He can’t change his attractions any more than you can.


So that brings us to the crux of the matter. Ambrosino did not say in his article that people could change their attractions. Rather, he said that they could change their sexual identities. There is a big difference between those concepts, a difference completely lost on sensitive readers unable to think about the issue clearly once their hackles were raised. Ambrosino identifies as gay. He is living a gay “lifestyle.” If a pollster asked him about his sexuality he’d say he was gay. To the legislators and judges deciding our fates, he is gay. To the right wing nutjobs and religious homophobes, he is gay. But he has CHOSEN to be gay since he also has a capacity to date women and choose to be straight. The fact that he can be attracted to both men and women does not change his chosen identity.


I have two straight friends who have been good friends with each other since their late teens. In their early twenties they had a brief sexual relationship. I have known both for many years, and they are straight. That is their sexual identity. But it is not inconceivable that one of them could meet a guy in just the right circumstances, and fall in love. And then he would have the opportunity to make a choice as to whether he was gay or straight. Or he could make the choice to consider himself bisexual. His identity would be his choice. But as of today their identities are unequivocally straight.


I have a friend who approached me a few years ago with the thought that he was interested in experiencing what gay sex is all about. He thought perhaps I could accommodate him. I turned him down. I’m not that kind of guy! This guy is also clearly straight. He is a far left liberal who has never cared a whit what other people think of him. Believe me, he’s not hiding anything. But he has an openness to gay experience, and therefore has the capacity to choose to have gay sex. If he met the right guy, who knows….But he has so far chosen to be straight.


That brings me to myself. I am gay. There is no ambiguity. However, I had one odd experience several years ago that ties into the fluidity idea. A girl touched my leg in a rather lingering, suggestive way, and I got an erection. I was stunned. I’m still stunned. My psychology views sex as an expression of love, not as an end in itself. Rather old fashioned, I know. But I didn’t choose that outlook, it’s just the way I’m built. I value emotional connection more than sexual connection, and the latter is a result of the former. So it’s not inconceivable that I could meet a woman with whom I develop a deep emotional bond. And then gradually evolve to where a sexual relationship develops to express that bond. At that point I could choose to live that life; I could choose to be straight. Or I could choose to continue to be gay. I don’t expect that scenario to develop, but it’s a possibility.


Then there is the lesbian situation. Multiple studies have shown that a majority of women who identify as lesbian have had sexual experiences with men. I came upon several studies of that type last week when I was researching the percentage of Americans who are gay. As an example, an Australian STD clinic found that only 7% of the lesbians they saw had never had sex with men. On the male side, large numbers report sexual experiences with women at some point in their lives, often in their early years.


This is what it means to be fluid sexually. It’s stunning to me how many gay people don’t believe in the concept. It’s even more stunning how many react with anger and vitriol if the concept is raised. But fluidity is real. It has always been real to some extent, but social pressures tended to force people into structured boxes of identity. The evolution of our society has opened up new possibilities, new ways of interpreting our lives and our sexuality.


Identity. Not attraction. People are denied rights on the basis of their identity, not on the basis of their attraction. People are attacked, and bullied, and fired, and called names, and denied marriage on the basis of their identity. For many people attraction and identity are the same thing. But for many others, in our more open and more flexible new world, the connection between the two is not absolute – it’s fluid. They can choose to be gay. Or choose to be straight. But, says Brandon Ambrosino, those choices should have no bearing on equality.


Brandon Ambrosino is right. And Brandon Ambrosino does not deserve the torrent of vitriol that has come his way in the past week, and the attempt to marginalize him for a viewpoint outside the narrow confines of what gay “spokesmen” and internet commenters have decided is acceptable thought. It’s harmful to our community, to our integrity, to our diversity of thought, to dismiss articles like Brandon’s as “garbage,” as many readers did. When we call people like him “asshats,” or demonize them as “self-haters” or “anti-gay sympathizers,” it shuts down discussion and hardens our thought structures.


So come on people. Open your minds, and toss away your little black book of “Proper Thinking For Good Gay People.” Do some actual thinking, and give people with challenging ideas a listen.

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5 Comments

Reply PaulR
4:28 PM on February 14, 2014 
I kind of see Ambrosino's point. If you are open to both sexes in the right circumstances, but then you are living a specific lifestyle, you could certainly say you chose that lifestyle. I'm not sure any more what the word bisexual means. I actually prefer "fluid" since bisexual kind of gives me the feeling that there's always an active attraction to both sexes. Fluid seems to accommodate situations where a person is mostly in one place, but then responds to the other sex in certain circumstances.
Reply Hue-Man
4:19 AM on February 5, 2014 
I didn't complete my Canadian reference before hitting the Post button. This whole discussion seems very foreign - imagine a straight person writing a column about the process he went through in choosing to be straight! Was he born straight? Did his straight identity match with his sexual attractions? etc. In your daily interactions with straight people, are you concerned with these issues? If not, why should they be relevant in your interactions with gay or bi people?

The difference between the two countries - other than excessive influene of organized religion in the U.S. - is that LGBT issues have been politicized in the U.S. whereas homophobia and racism have been effectively removed from Canadian political discourse. (Obviously, there are racists and gay-haters in Canada but, for example, the Alberta provincial election was lost by a polticial party's candidates who made intolerant statements.)

The only relevant discussion of one's sexuality might be in the context of a new couple's story-telling which may or may not be embellished or edited. Now if a Canadian NHL player came out, that would make news - for at least a day or two.
Reply Hue-Man
1:05 AM on February 5, 2014 
I don't mind the philosophical discussion because it addresses the failure of language to deal with the complexities of human sexuality, particularly the nuances associated with loaded terms such as attraction, identification, orientation, choice, lifestyle, etc. But the U.S. is nowhere near the 100% score-card for LGBT rights (Canada's legal structure is close but still has gaps in dealing with transgender individuals' rights); the gay-hating opponents will - if they haven't already - proclaimed victory because one man who identifies as gay says that he chose to be gay. Much like the Regnerus hoax, it will be cited by the haters until people are treated equally under the law; I'm certian none of them will ever answer the reverse question: "When did you choose to be straight?"

My other sensitivity is that he's inching too close to the line that's appeared recently of "Your sexual orientation is determined by your sexual partners." (I'll refrain from expressing it in a shorter, if more vulgar form.) If men have sex with women, they're straight.
Reply Dennis Stone
5:10 PM on February 4, 2014 
John - Interesting legal info, as always, but I wasn't making the case that our rights weren't impacted by the question of choice. I had two points. First, that by any sense of logic or fair play, that choice SHOULDN'T impact our rights (even if it theoretically could). Second, that the issue is utterly moot. Ambrosino didn't say that gay orientation is chosen. And the courts all of a sudden aren't going to say, "you know, that Brandon Ambrosino guy says that he chose to be gay, and others can choose that too; that changes everything, and now we're going to rule against the gays."

I don't agree with your comments about involuntary bodily responses. That DOES show a real potential to have a sexual response in a situation other than what one thought one was restricted to. The rape example doesn't apply to what I'm trying to say.

I just wish Ambrosino had been much more clear about the points he was making. That's a trait of his, though. I read a couple of other pieces and kept thinking that he was omitting things and not making his points in a clear fashion. Obviously a big flaw in a writer. And it's biting him in the ass with this article.

John says...
I read the piece and honestly it registered so little that I can't really understand the outrage. I do take issue with the phrasing in terms of choosing an orientation. I do believe in sexual fluidity but I don't believe it's possible to consciously choose orientation. One can choose sexual expression and even have sex with people outside your orientation but expression does not equal orientation. An involuntary bodily response like an erection isn't proof of sexual fluidity. Rape victims can have orgasms and erections.
Reply John
12:54 PM on February 4, 2014 
I read the piece and honestly it registered so little that I can't really understand the outrage. I do take issue with the phrasing in terms of choosing an orientation. I do believe in sexual fluidity but I don't believe it's possible to consciously choose orientation. One can choose sexual expression and even have sex with people outside your orientation but expression does not equal orientation. An involuntary bodily response like an erection isn't proof of sexual fluidity. Rape victims can have orgasms and erections.

From a purely legal standpoint, our rights as non-heterosexual Americans ARE dependent on the question of choice. When determining what level of Constitutional protections apply to sexual orientation discrimination, one of the questions asked is whether the class being subject to discrimination is based on "obvious, immutable, or distinguishing characteristics". If sexual orientation is a choice, it is not "immutable" and so makes meeting the standard for strict scrutiny, the highest level of scrutiny, near-impossible. Indeed, the Supreme Court has steadfastly refused to specify what level of scrutiny it has used in its landmark decisions related to sexual orientation. The Obama administration defended the various DOMA cases under the theory that the lowest level, rational review, applied but as soon as some federal courts started ruling that "heightened" scrutiny applied the administration stopped its defense.